Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Mara Kalman

3 02 2012

I’m telling you why we broke up, Ed. I’m writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened.

Min Green and Ed Slaterton are breaking up, so Min is writing Ed a letter and giving him a box. Inside the box is why they broke up. Two bottle caps, a movie ticket, a folded note, a box of matches, a protractor, books, a toy truck, a pair of ugly earrings, a comb from a motel room, and every other item collected over the course of a giddy, intimate, heartbreaking relationship. Item after item is illustrated and accounted for, and then the box, like a girlfriend, will be dumped.

 I need to start this review with a warning. It isn’t a bad warning in particular. The warning simply is this: I didn’t enjoy A Series of Unfortunate Events much when I was younger. I liked the macabre tones of the novels, but I always felt a bit disconnected as I read the entire series. Warning aside, I was eager to read a copy of Handler(aka Lemony Snicket)’s first YA novel, a collaboration with artist Mara Kalman. 

Now onto the specifics. The novel easily could have become gimmicky, and people were very interested in the concept of the novel itself when the book was introduced to the world. But Handler took a gimmicky plot and made it interesting, and it is no wonder the novel was awarded a 2012 Printz Honor. The book essentially resolves around the course of the relationship–the first meetings and dates, the highs and the lows, the fights and eventually the breakup. Min has recently broken up with her boyfriend Ed and the book is written as a letter to explain “why we broke up.” She also attaches a box, filled with memorabilia gathered through the course of the relationship, to accompany the letter. Kalman’s illustrations show the objects.

Now to the characters. As stated at the beginning of this review I could not relate to Handler’s characters. I don’t know if it was my young age, the book, or how different the series and this novel are, but I related to these characters far better. Min I really related to, with her questions of identity and relationships and how everyone finds her “arty”. You really feel her pain and sadness, as it becomes apparent that Ed may not even read the story or look at the objects she has collected. I related to Ed far less, but I think that was the author’s intention : we want to root for Min,not the person who broke her heart. I understood both Ed’s good and bad sides, and he was a very well rounded character. But while his actions represented his character and made sense, it was hard to like him because of what he did to Min and his choices. 

The writing was the one part where I struggled and took off half a star. Handler writes the novel in vignettes, essentially, as Min remembers every event of the relationship and each of the objects’ meaning to the relationship. Because Min is writing directly to Ed she refers to him as ” you” during the writing. This makes sense for the novel but it is very jarring at first. Sometimes I would forget “you” was Ed. Handler also uses very little dialogue tags, with pages and pages devoid of tags. This was hard to read, and sometimes I had no idea who was speaking. Other than those two qualms Handler’s writing was very fresh and fluid.

Side note on the art: I’m no art critic but the drawings were very fresh and fluid. I received an ARC in a giveaway and many of the drawings were missing from the galley. What I saw of the art, however, was very impressive.

Why We Broke Up is a fantastic book. If you enjoyed Handler’s other novels or like epistolary novels this is a book for you, and I think many people would enjoy it. It’s a great novel deserving of awards and I’m glad to have read the book.

Four point five stars(4.5)

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